Tracing History Along Florida’s Civil Rights Trail
By Andrew Meacham
The struggle for equal rights defies calendar dates, even Black History Month. Some of its wounds still lie fresh, and some of the biggest victories remain incomplete. Five Florida landmarks got a major boost in 2018, however, by being listed on the United States Civil Rights Trail, which connects more than 100 sites in 15 Southeastern states. Stories of heroism live on in each city, as does the change these stories have created in the world.
The trail project, which launched in January 2018 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, covers historically significant schools, churches, courthouses and museums, including some of the best known flashpoints -- the school desegregation in Little Rock, Ark; a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. ; and the voting rights protests in Selma, Ala.
Some Florida landmarks are famous, too, at least indirectly. Out-of-state visitors might know little about Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach. But they’ve heard of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier there in 1948.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination illegal when President Lyndon Johnson signed it on July 2, 1964. Just as important were months of protests and nightly marches in St. Augustine, culminating at the Monson Motor Lodge two weeks earlier.
Students can often get through high school with “two names (Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks) and four words (‘I have a dream;’ ‘back of the bus’). That’s the extent of their knowledge,” said Julie Buckner Armstrong, whose books include Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching. and editing the Cambridge Companion to American Civil Rights Literature. That’s why the idea of a civil rights trail is so important, including the Florida sites, Armstrong said.
“When I put these together,” she said, “I see a longer and more complex kind of civil rights narrative than what one typically gets.”
First martyrs: Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Memorial Park and Museum
2180 Freedom Ave., Mims. (321) 264-6595
Climb four stairs and walk into a small but tidy yellow house, into the living room of Harry and Harriette Moore, a powerful but still relatively unsung couple who spearheaded civil rights battles on many fronts. Curators have recreated the wood frame home of the two civil rights leaders the way it was on Christmas Day 1951 before the dynamite underneath it exploded.
History has enshrined the Moores as the first Americans to die for their civil rights activism. A museum built 10 years ago has restored them, in a way – the couple’s dress and likenesses painted onto mannequins around an oak table, their coffee cups at the ready. He’s writing. His wife is beside him, said Sonya Mallard, the culture coordinator of the Harry T. & Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex, the multi-purpose hub of a 12-acre park.
“We try to bring Harry and Harriette back and show you the temperament and the integrity they have.”
A small citrus town in Brevard County, Mims lies 130 miles south of Jacksonville and is technically part of Titusville. Harry Moore served as principal of the Titusville Colored School and taught ninth grade. He met Harriette Simms, a former teacher, at a card game and was instantly smitten. They eloped Dec. 25, 1926.
In 1934, Harry founded the Brevard County NAACP. Three years later, he backed a lawsuit over unequal pay for black teachers, argued in court by future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. The suit failed but provided a template for dozens more that succeeded, correcting disparities in pay on the basis of race.
By 1946, Moore had become executive director of the Florida NAACP, where he did some of his most important work, focusing on voter suppression and lynchings. In 1949, he learned of the questionable circumstances surrounding the convictions of four young Lake County men accused of raping a white woman. The men collectively came to be known as the Groveland Four.
Moore led a public outcry over Jim Crow justice, achieving national publicity. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered new trials for two of the defendants, both of whom were subsequently shot by Sheriff Willis V. McCall, who claimed that Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin had been trying to escape. Shepherd died from his wounds. (A fourth defendant, Ernest Thomas, was gunned down while fleeing a sheriff’s posse.)
Moore wrote an angry letter to the governor demanding an explanation for the shootings. On Dec. 25, 1951, the Moores’ 25th wedding anniversary and less than a month after Harry Moore’s letter, a bomb exploded from a crawl space beneath the house.
The couple had planned to celebrate on Dec. 26, when their daughter Evangeline arrived. That’s why presents under the Christmas tree in the replica home at the museum remain unopened. The murders are still unsolved. In January 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis posthumously pardoned the Groveland Four, nearly 70 years after their convictions.
Despite that history, the “Moore experience” at the park and cultural center is designed to be uplifting. The center hosts visual and performing arts, museum exhibits, quilting classes, and a 5k run. A bus tour allows visitors to browse fruit stands along Highway 46, the route that carried Harry and Harriette Moore to the hospital, and the segregated LaGrange Cemetery, where they are buried.
A right to counsel: Bay County Courthouse
300 E 4th St., Panama City. (850) 763-9061
Gideon v. Wainwright began here as a penny-ante burglary trial. It wound up in the Supreme Court on the strength of a hand-written appeal by a drifter with an eighth-grade education.
Panama City lies on the fat end of the Panhandle, about 65 miles south of the Florida-Alabama line. The classical revival courthouse (1915) stands in a manicured park in the city’s historic district, bordering Massalina Bayou. Clarence Earl Gideon lost his freedom here, sentenced to five years for a crime he said he didn’t commit.
Gideon, a 50-year-old white man, swore it wasn’t he who broke into the Bay Harbor Pool Room and stole $5 in change. Because he could not afford a lawyer, Gideon asked the court to appoint one under the mistaken impression that he was entitled to legal representation. A judge denied the request, then found him guilty. Gideon appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that his constitutional rights had been violated under the Sixth Amendment, which covers criminal prosecutions.
The court referred the case back to Bay County and tapped lawyer Abe Fortas to represent Gideon. Fortas, a future Supreme Court justice, argued that due process rights under the 14th Amendment guarantee a right to counsel for all defendants who request it. The Supreme Court agreed. Today, court-appointed lawyers represent about 75 percent of all defendants.
The courthouse offers booklets and posts a marker about the Gideon case.
You also can choose from numerous boat tours while in town, including dolphin watching, or check out the Center for the Arts or an adjacent marina. A quarter-mile from the courthouse, the Martin Theatre (1936) puts on both plays and movies.
The house that Jackie built: Historic Dodgertown
3901 26th St., Vero Beach. (772) 569-4900
The only sports property on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail earned its cachet with the 1947 signing of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, a move that changed American sports. A former Negro League standout, Robinson debuted on March 31, 1948, homering in his first at-bat. Baseball’s “Great Experiment,” spearheaded by Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, was under way.
There are plenty of historical photos and relics, including memorabilia from six championship teams between 1948 and 2008, when the
Los Angeles Dodgers moved their winter headquarters to Phoenix. An outdoor wall at Holman Stadium features replicas of more than 143 baseball players who passed through Dodgertown, either for the Dodgers or opposing teams.
While Dodgertown doesn’t operate regular guided tours per se, the organization routinely welcomes groups, spokeswoman Ruth Ruiz said. You also might be able to catch a spring training game of the SK Wyverns, a South Korean team and reigning South Korean World Series champions. A professional baseball umpire’s school also holds workouts. Some of these events are open to the public and some are not, and specific games might require tickets. Best bet is to call first and ask what’s available to see, Ruiz said.
Soon after Robinson, the Dodgers continued to set the pace in baseball’s integration, signing All-Stars Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe among others. Meanwhile, Dodgertown removed separate water fountains and restrooms in 1962, seven years before local schools desegregated.
Wade in the water: Newtown Alive
Of all of Florida’s natural resources, nothing compares to its beaches. Yet for decades, African-Americans were not permitted to visit them. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, residents of Newtown on the west coast tested those waters in droves, bringing black residents to lily-white Sarasota beaches one caravan at a time. Residents of the segregated suburb would drive in caravans to Sarasota, wade into the water and walk and return to their cars. It took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to do away with segregated beaches for good.
The Newtown Alive bus or trolley tour follows an uphill civil rights struggle. Created by Newtown native Vickie Oldham, the tour retraces the community’s history, from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Act.
Much of that knowledge surfaced only recently because most of the area’s rich history lived in the memories of its residents, and the letters and other documents they left behind.
“There might be a paragraph in a history book, or a photo in a cutline, or a sentence,” said Oldham, a former television news reporter. That changed in 2014, with a task force’s 361-page report on the centennial of Newtown’s birth in 1914.
The community began 30 years earlier as Overtown, what is now known today as Sarasota’s Rosemary District, before population growth and nervous city leaders forced black residents to move north, creating Newtown.
The tour starts at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, lasts up to two hours, costs $40, and includes stories told by longtime residents and freedom songs. Oldham narrates as visitors wind past early farmworker settlements, a bustling business district, early churches, and dense patterns of “vernacular” architecture, built out of the traditions of local craftspeople. The discussion extends to education, work life, social organizations, segregation and desegregation, and military service.
The tour ends in celebration at Lido Beach, where the people who helped build this community demanded an equal space in it. That’s one block south of the upscale shops on St. Armands Circle Marketplace.
Dr. King was jailed here: National Historic Preservation District, St. Augustine
On June 11, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was charged with violating Florida’s “unwanted guest law” after trying to dine at a pricey St. Augustine restaurant, ratcheting racial tensions higher. Police found King on the front steps of the Monson Motor Lodge Restaurant, confronting the general manager about the hotel’s discriminatory policies.
When black protesters a week later crashed the hotel’s pool, manager James Brock responded by pouring muriatic acid in the water.
The oldest continuously settled city in the country (1565), St. Augustine had already seen its share of conflict, from pirate invasions to Spanish occupation and the Civil War. For more than a decade now, the public has been able to walk in the shoes of civil rights icons along the Freedom Trail, starting at the 79 Bridge St. office of Dr. Robert Hayling, the dentist who invited King to the city. The tour ends 30 stops later at the Chase Funeral Home, a place of refuge for civil rights marchers in the 1960s.
The Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront now stands on the old Monson property overlooking Matanzas Bay. But a literal inflection point of our civil rights struggle remains.
“At the Hilton, there’s a concrete slab,” said Charles Tingley, a senior research librarian for the St. Augustine Historical Society. “You can touch the spot where King was arrested.”
Elsewhere, the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center contains a broad range of exhibits, some of which cover civil rights. Among them is a piano once used by Ray Charles while a student at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.
In Plaza de la Constitucion, the central park downtown, you’ll find a 400-year-old, open-air pavilion of uncertain origins which locals refer to as the “slave market.” Andrew Young led a march here in June 1964, enduring a public beating that shamed the city.
Not far away stands what might represent the heart of the civil rights movement, the Foot Soldier’s Monument, a stone pedestal with faces of marchers embossed in bronze. To bone up on civil rights history in St. Augustine and beyond, visit Flagler College’s digital Civil Rights Library.